When Pope Benedict XVI commented on Islam in an address at the University of Regensburg in Germany on September 12, he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who said, "Show me what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The pope did not originally dissociate himself from the citation, and the media quoted it out of context. Then Muslims in various parts of the world responded violently, killing Christians and burning churches.
Yet not all responses from Muslims have been violent. A group of 38 Muslim scholars from around the world tried to bring the encounter back to the academy through an open letter to the pope. (Text available at IslamicaMagazine.com.) The Muslims who signed the open letter include grand muftis who are authorized to make legal decisions for Muslims in their countries. Other signers are professors at major universities in the Muslim world and the West who influence the rising generation of Muslims. The opportunity to engage with them is significant.
Notwithstanding the ugly headlines, attention to Benedict's speech and the events that led up to it can aid productive dialogue between Muslims and Christians. And the stakes could not be higher. Our religions together represent more than half of the world's population. Members of each community blame the other side for conflicts, both ancient and contemporary.
Dialogue, however, presents us with an opportunity to hear Muslim concerns and express our ownsuch as our desire for greater religious freedom. And dialogue can lead to results. When my wife and I led a church in Afghanistan, a Christian family was imprisoned for distributing Gospel portions. ...1